Editors Redux

A while back, I wrote this. Needless to say, I pissed off a few editors, some so severely that I began to wonder if they missed my point. Hey, maybe I needed an editor to help me make it more clear to editors why I think they’re overrated and, far too often, a detriment to the writer rather than a help. That would be kind of ironic, maybe, if anyone actually understood what irony means.

Anyway, I let it drop after that as, essentially, my point was that editors aren’t higher on the literary food chain than writers and, given the new realities taking hold, are little more than a supplemental contractor, as it were, serving at the writer’s discretion. Yet still, nearly every day, I see the same old arguments made. Writers can’t produce publishable work without editors. You need an editor. Editors are essential. Yada, yada, yada.

Editors are a tool at the writer’s disposal, one of many. Depending on the type and skill level of the editor in question, the trick is figuring out if they’re a tool that can help finish the job well, or an extraneous tool that seems shiny but ultimately is little more than one of those cheaply made pieces of junk you find in the “As Seen On TV” aisle that doesn’t quite live up to the game-changing hype on the infomercial.

Anyway, for clarity’s sake, I decided to revisit my point.

1. Most editors suck at their jobs

Most editors didn’t really appreciate my observations on this. There are so many different kinds of editors, and different jobs within publishing that carry the word “editor” in their title. It’s become a catch-all, pseudo-management title used more often to give an employee an air of higher standing without actually having any of said standing. In book publishing, there’s acquistion editors, copy editors, line editors, content editors, etc, etc. The magazine/newspaper world’s even worse, with offices in many cases employing more people with editor after their names than writers. One of the things I said in my original piece was that most editors are simply people who are wannabe writers who are either failures at it or lack the courage to be the creator. It’s always easier to manipulate the work of others than create it in the first place. This doesn’t mean that a good editor can’t add value, they can. It means there are a lot more mediocre-to-bad editors out there than good ones. I stand by this point completely.

Writers almost always exist in the grey area of uncertainty called self employment. Editors, on the other hand, usually collect a regular paycheck (modern publisher downsizing is changing this but it still holds as a generalization). Do you really want someone who chose the illusion of job security that comes with a regular paycheck over the risk of chasing their dreams dicking around with your attempt to chase your dreams? Again, this isn’t all editors, but it’s more of them than not. Keep in mind, as well, if your editor is one of these people, their motivation lies necessarily on the side of making your work fit the standards of the publisher who’s paying them rather than making your work the best it can be in a vacuum. Sometimes, those goals dovetail nicely. More often than not, however, they don’t.

This isn’t a blanket indictment against editors, it’s their job. They work for the publisher. They’re first order of business is necessarily serving the needs of the entity paying their bills. This is really a question for writers to answer. Do you want your work to conform to a publisher’s standards or to your own? The notion that these two ends always coincide is a fairy tale. In the old traditional market, all the sacrifice was on the writer’s shoulders simply because we had no leverage otherwise. It really and truly was my way or the highway at its root.

I’ve done my share of commercial painting over the years. It’s a nice skill to have and I’ve paid my bills through some lean years with it. The biggest trouble I had was contractors who’s motivations differed from mine. Contractors want to be max profitable above all else. I wanted to produce the best quality job for the person buying the house. Occasionally, this led to conflict when the contractor advocated something half-assed to support their profitability. Publishers are like contractors, editors either conform to their standards and demands or they’ll be looking for work elsewhere. I believe it’s crucial for writers to understand these dynamics. It’s pretty important to know if the editor who’s tinkering with your work is serving two masters. In those cases, when push comes to shove, the master with the fatter wallet wins almost every time.

Now, however, independent publishing has changed things a bit. Writers are the ones cutting the check now. Yet I still see editors with a “I know best” attitude, behaving as if the dynamic hasn’t shifted. The most important thing I said in my previous piece is that the editor works for you now. Listen to them, certainly, otherwise you’re wasting your money, but the ultimate decisions rest solely with you. You are in charge. I wonder if this isn’t why some editors were unhappy with my opinions. In the old traditional mechanism, editors were higher on the ladder than writers. Nobody likes to feel their skills are being maginalized, or declining in influence or authority. I feel bad but editors never should have gotten higher than writers in the first place. Editing is a supplemental activity to (theoretically) benefit the writer. The only reason that structure happened was so publishers could marginalize the importance of writers (and their ultimate compensation, let’s not forget that). Editors became what they did because publishers willfully used them to add a layer between creator and market that only they could successfully navigate, and to infantalize writers so they’d be less likely to rebel against a system that earns all its revenue on your back but only pays out a relative pittance in return. That strategy of infantilization has worked so spectacularly well that writers, en mass, have essentially self-imposed that structure. I still see good, talented, independent writers touting the value of these obstacles willingly put in their way by publishers, like agents and editors. Stockholm syndrome at its finest.

2. All editors aren’t awful

My rhetoric against editors in the original piece was over the top. I admitted as much in the article. Every editor doesn’t suck at their job. Most of them do, though. It’s crucial to find one who doesn’t, and that largely depends on what specific skills they possess and how they choose to wield them. A good copy editor is worth every penny. By the way, I define copyeditor as line by line, typo and grammar editor. This is painstaking, tedious work. I suspect a big part of the reason writers have willfully gone along with the editor fallacy is precisely because copy editing sucks and we just don’t want to be responsible for it. Where do you suppose the notion of “I just wanna write” comes from? Writers who only want to do the fun, easy parts and dump the difficult actual work on someone else, that’s where. Now I’m going to do what I neglected to do but should have in the original piece, I’m going to lay the wood to writers.

If you’re a writer who subscribes to the above-mentioned theory, you are lazy. I just wanna collect royalty checks as a super best selling author. Someone else can handle the actual writing, I just want to cash those fat checks. That’s the same as saying “I just wanna write” while engaged in a business atmosphere. If you truly just want to write, there’s nothing wrong with that. It makes you a hobbyist, but that’s fine. But far too many writers saying this are actively seeking publishers, or actively self publishing. You can’t behave in a businesslike way but pick and choose to do only the parts you think are fun. To begin with, that attitude puts you at a severe disadvantage in dealing with people committed to the actual business and they will screw you every time on the contractual end given the opportunity. I’m pretty sure their mouths get to watering whenever a writer walks in saying “I don’t want to worry my pretty little head with actual complex professional business issues, I just wanna write!” If you don’t want to deal with the actual business end, then do everybody a favor and get the hell out of the business. You’re poisoning the waters for everybody else. By willfully signing over all rights, agreeing to onerous non-competes, accepting pittance royalties with little or no accountability to back those up and basically abdicating any and all responsibility for the business side of publishing, you’re helping establish standards that those of us who do actually care about the business side have to fight through every day just to try and get a remotely equitable contract out of a publisher. Everything worth doing in life comes with a heaping helping of things you don’t want to do. Suck it up, it’s part of the program. By not doing so, you’ve opened the door to publisher exploitation of writers wide open. The “I just wanna write” attitude has done more to infantalize writers than all the actions of all the publishers in the world combined. It’s like with most things, it can only screw us over so long as we allow it to.

Let’s say publishers are vampires. When you, sitting on your cushy little couch, utter the phrase, “I just wanna write,” you’re inviting the blood sucking parasite inside. More often than not, by the end of the evening, the vampire strolls away satiated and you’re left a pale-white, dessicated husk drained to the bone. Too strong a metaphor? Depends on who you ask.

3. But unedited work is awful

Yes it is. But here’s the thing, editing is a task. You don’t need a person with a title for it. Like the “I just wanna write” notion, “writers can’t edit their own work” is another dangerous and inherently lazy attitude to hold. Of course you can edit your own work, you wrote it for Christ sake! It’s like saying a master carpenter can build a chest of drawers but he shouldn’t sand or finish it. “Carpenters can’t paint their own work.” Doesn’t that sound absurd?

Woodworking and painting are simply learned skills that are a means to an end, in this case, a sweet new dresser. Writing and editing are learned skills that are a means to an end, a great novel for instance. No different. Are you going to tell the chef that he’s great at preparing the meal, but the table presentation should be left to someone else? I didn’t think so.

The key here, however, is that the carpenter knows going in that the finish for his chest is a crucial part of the job. The chef understands that successfully plating the meal is a crucial part of the job. Therefore, they learn how to do those things and do them well. Writers, on the other hand, by being told “I just wanna write” is okay, and “writers can’t edit their own work” drummed into us like Moses carried it down from the mountain, don’t even try. There is actually truth in saying writers can’t edit their own work today because we’ve bred generations of writers who never bothered to learn how. It’s a crucial skill that’s part of the job and we, on the whole, ignore it. Writers became unable to edit our own work because the industry actively minimalizing our skills so they could make more money told us so. They also, not coincidentally, had a ready solution of people who could take care of that for us so we could stop worrying our pretty little heads and just write. They’re called editors.

I am not, repeat not advocating that writers just throw unedited stuff out there. Someone has to do it. I’ve already mentioned that a good copy editor is well worth the expense, with all the emphasis on good. What I’m saying is writers not only can but should learn to edit their own work. It’s not rocket science. It’s a relatively easily learned skill. By comparison, it’s a helluva lot easier to learn good editing skills than to learn good writing. It’s not often fun, it can be tedious if done right, but it’s an essential part of the job. Learn it. Now.

Self-edited work is not unedited work. This pisses me off more than almost anything when I see these terms used interchangeably. As a writer, I find it personally offensive. Why is my edit somehow less valuable than someone else’s? Where is the mystical line where the person with the skills to create something in the first place magically loses all capability to refine it?

My opinion is that it’s always better for multiple sets of eyes to look something over. It’s always preferable to see points of view other than your own. But the traditional editor/writer dynamic gives too much voice to the editor. Again, what I’m advocating here isn’t that writers should just say, “Fuck you, I’m going to do whatever the hell I want!” Well, sometimes, maybe. But for the most part, I’m saying we need to look at conditions and re-evaluate the role and importance of editors. That can’t be done if writers don’t also pick up the slack and re-learn the tasks we willfully abdicated long ago.

In the traditional setup, writers were essentially selling books to editors. We weren’t selling them to readers. Editors, in turn, were selling those books to the publishers who employed them. Again, not readers. Hell, even publishers were selling those books to distributors or chain stores, not readers. The only people actually selling books to readers were at the retail level. Should it surprise anyone that it was a retail company (Amazon) that rose up and finally kicked publishing in the balls? Today, it’s more important than ever to sell to readers. Nobody in the old chain knows how to do that, including writers and editors. Is it preferable, when selling to readers, to seek content feedback from actual readers or editors, who, like writers, have been kept several degrees of separation from readers for the publisher’s advantage? That’s rhetorical. The answer’s pretty obvious.

So there it is in a nutshell: editors suck, writers are lazy, we’ve both been made that way by publishers parasitically exploiting us for profit and we’re all screwed anyway because none of us knows the first thing about selling to readers. Wait, was that my point? Aw shit, maybe I do need an editor.

Editors Note: No I don’t.

Published in: on February 1, 2013 at 8:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Editor Fallicy…Falacie…Fallacy…yeah, that’s it, Fallacy

I’d like to take a contrary position to the whole of the literary establishment for a moment, if I may. Much has been written, and will continue to be, on the rift between traditional and indie publishing. Hell, many traditional supporters throw a little shit-fit with just the use of the term “indie” as a moniker for self publishers. Some days, it seems like World Peace is a more attainable goal than bridging the gap between the established and emerging segments of the publishing industry.

But there is one area where both sides are in complete agreement. That is the absolute, irrefutable necessity of having any and all writing vetted by an honest to goodness editor. And who could argue with that, you ask? (If you didn’t ask, I apologize for putting words in your mouth but I kinda need that rhetorical response from “you” to keep the narrative flow going. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this next thing) Who could argue with that, you ask? I can!

Now before you get all up in arms and pissy, nostrils flaring, uppity defensive of something everyone seems to agree on but the implications of which very few people actually consider, let me explain. If you can’t or won’t edit your own work, both for polish and content, you’re not only lazy, but you’re not a complete writer, either. Three…two…one…ok, now you can get all beside yourself with righteous indignation. I mean, come on! Everybody knows that even the best writers churn out barely literate crap until the sainted editor gets his/her red pen into it. Plus, who would want to live in a world where writers are able, or even *gasp* encouraged to release their work bypassing the filters of the all-seeing, all-knowing editor? I shudder to think of the implications of seeing the raw, unfettered power of the writer’s creative muse. I imagine it would be a little like looking directly at an angel, their transcendent light far too bright, burning mere human eyes right out of their sockets. Our minds would turn to jelly without editors to properly harness all that writerly power.

Seriously, though, I am really sick of reading about how writers can’t possibly string together so much as a tweet, let alone an entire novel without someone else hanging over their shoulder steering the course. That’s what editors do, after all. Were you fully aware of that? Editors take other people’s material and structure it to suit either their own preconceived notions or the fiscal necessity of the platform they’re editing for. That’s the gig. Book editors are a little different than periodical editors in that they tend to shape the content to their perceived needs in their particular market sphere rather than a homogenized “style” or publication “brand.” Same difference to the writer in the end, though. I’d still like someone to explain to me how an editor who steeped within the structure of traditional publishing is going to be all that helpful to an indie. Sure, they can shape your book up into something that might resemble something else that once worked in the traditional realm, but if you’re an indie, you’re not really selling into that distribution area. You know how much real world market experience those former and current trad editors have selling digital independently? About as much as my great grandfather, and he’s been dead since 1954.

Then there’s the little matter of whether many editors are even qualified to dick around with an actual creator’s work in the first place. Let’s not kid ourselves, the phrase editor, in some circles, might still hold a bit of prestige, but from my experience, that editor you’re working with is, more often than not, a result of the “those who can’t, teach” school of thought. People become editors for one of three reasons, generally: 1) they’re a failed writer and had to pay the bills somehow, 2) they don’t have the balls to be the writer and it’s much easier–and usually pays better–to manipulate the work of others than produce it yourself, or 3) they are a successful writer who developed their own skills after years of dealing with semi-competent half wits who likely suggested adding some foreshadowing to the table of contents or some other such absurd idea at one time or another. There may be other ways to get that editor title next to your name (some folks go to school for it, I hear) but those are the three big ones. If you’ve got a #3, then you’re golden, but the other two are sure-fire paths to fucking up whatever artistic vision you lacked confidence in so much you turned to a stranger who’s primary claim to career fame is “I fixed some typos in so-and-so’s #1 bestseller back in 1996.”

Editor is the very definition of a fallback career option. Just like nobody ever says, “I wanna be a junkie when I grow up,” nobody says, “I wanna be an editor when I grow up,” either. Editor is the consolation prize in the literary job market. Ask yourself, is that the kind of person you really want impacting your career, someone who slid into a position filled with tedious shit-work just because it was kinda sorta in the same neighborhood as the dashed and discarded dreams of their misspent youth? Not me and you shouldn’t either.

The editor fallacy is willfully perpetuated by the traditional industry. It’s a ruse designed to keep writers down. I’m not kidding, read some of the criticisms floating around. You would seriously think writers turned out little more than random chunks of directionless text that no mere mortal could possibly make sense of if an editor didn’t mold it into shape first. Are you gonna take that? I mean, you fancy yourself a storyteller yet you don’t know if the story you’re telling sucks or not without third party involvement? Why should I plunk down my hard earned cash for the offerings of your literary vision when you don’t even understand or have confidence in it?

My point is that the notion of the infallibility of the editor, and their necessity in shaping a writer’s efforts can be an insidious one. It devalues the writer. If a book is a house, it makes the writer’s output akin to raw lumber and lifts the editor to the role of carpenter. The traditional industry thrived on this relationship dynamic for years, it helped keep writers in their place at the bottom. Otherwise, they, as a group, might have wanted something outrageous like being fairly compensated for work that produces every single dollar in industry revenues.

It’s a new world now. You are the raw material, the carpenter, the plumber, the electrician and the painter. At best, the editor is the day laborer who comes in and sweeps up the leftover dirt off the floor before you move in. Do you think carpenters ask the advice of a broom jockey on hanging joices joists? Would an electrician appreciate getting notes from the sweeper detailing how he could run the wiring to the ceiling fans more efficiently? Don’t get me wrong, writers aren’t infallible by any stretch, either, but there’s one key difference…you’re the fucking writer!

In the old model, the perception in a lot of ways, was that the writer works for the editor, true or not. In the new model, the editor unquestionably works for the writer. Big difference. Now, when your editor suggests that you rewrite chapters 8 through 14 and add a talking sewer rat as comic relief to break up the tension in your drama about an unjustly convicted man’s experiences with prison rape, you can feel free to snort coffee out your nose, laughing hysterically as you work on cancelling the check you paid him or her with. The old way, you’d laugh a bit then cringe at the inevitable realization that you’ll probably end up doing it if you ever wanted to retain any hope of seeing that book in print.

Look, it’s your book, it’s your story, no one on the planet knows it better than you. If you’re going to be a storyteller, believe in the stories you write. That doesn’t mean don’t seek out input or listen if somebody offers up some interesting ideas. But even then, ideas are just that. You’re the one who has to take the grains of inspiration from those ideas and shape them into the story you want to tell. You can’t rely on anyone else to do that for you, otherwise, it’s not your story anymore.

I’ve been a bit harsh on editors here, unfairly so in some ways, but I’m making a point. The editor is no longer among the gatekeeper class you need to appease. You don’t have to do everything they say, and you definitely don’t work for them. Editors are a tool for indie writers that, if properly utilized can be beneficial. Got that? The editor is at the service of the writer. And even then, they’re still only one tool of many. And don’t ever forget that they work for you now.

A truly great editor is almost worth their weight in gold. My descriptions of editors in this piece are obviously exaggerated, but make no mistake, those people exist. Very likely in far greater numbers than anyone will openly admit. Where a great editor can add quite a bit to your efforts, a lousy editor can do just as much, if not more to destroy and detract from your work. And there are an abundance of lousy editors out there, more than not, I believe. Editors are no different than any other field of endeavor. There’s four or five bad to mediocre ones for every good one, and out of every 50 or so good ones, you might see one reach exceptional status. The key is to recognize the difference. If you’re not confident in your storytelling prowess, if you can’t defend the merits of your work and the artistic choices you make, you’re actively making your work susceptible to the heavy hand of a bad editor.

Despite what you might think with my prior insults, there are quality editors out there available for hire, and in the right circumstance with the proper context, they can help polish your work. But any old editor isn’t necessarily a good editor. One of the worst things that can happen to a person is to fail on someone’s terms other than your own. Giving an editor, any editor, even the good ones, carte blanche to screw around with your story is setting yourself up to fail through no fault of your own. Unless, of course, you consider changing key elements of your story against your artistic judgment to appease an editor a fault of your own. I do.

Editor skills aren’t some magical capability that’s unattainable to writers. Anyone with the right motivation can learn quality editing. It’ll surprise you how much improvement creeps into your work just by having an editor’s mentality in the back of your mind. This isn’t to say you should do everything yourself, although I am one of the apparently few people who believes you can successfully do it that way if you’re willing to be meticulous and put in the time. It’s always better to have multiple sets of eyes go over your work. Just don’t ever forget that you’re in charge. It’s your story, your world, you make the rules.

I’ve said before that many people, probably most, don’t truly understand the dynamic shift going on right now. Many of us still approach the new possibilities as simply an extension of the way things were always done. It’s not. Digital is a genetically different business than traditional, though they may appear similar today in the early stages, they really are quite divergent, and growing more so as time and technology expands. Old models can be adapted and find a niche, but nothing translates easily and without effort. Don’t hold to any particular dogma, and that especially includes slavish devotion to an editor.

Tell your stories, the way you want. It’s been a long time since writers have had that ability on a wide scale. And don’t listen to the naysayers screaming in comments sections all over the web about having your work “properly vetted”. That’s a holdover from a past that, quite frankly, limited and exploited the writer. It also served to homogenize much of the content. You ever wonder why so many cookie cutter books, both in substance and tone, exist? That, my friends, is the work of editors. Nobody can steal a writer’s voice more effectively than an editor. Nobody can suck the life out of a story better than an editor. That’s not to say editors don’t have a place, they do. It’s just a far less influential one than it has been.

Editors are not higher on the literary food chain than writers. They are little more than a hired hand to provide a specific service on the writer’s terms. They are your employee. You’d do very well to remember that, even if you have to block out the shouting of those who don’t yet see that things have changed.

Oh yeah, about that “lazy and not a complete writer crack,” sure, I was shooting over the top, just trying to get your attention, but I’m sticking to it. Prove me wrong. Please.

Published in: on August 25, 2012 at 9:46 pm  Comments (14)  
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